Google+ Cinema Viewfinder: The Year 2003: Counting Down the Zeroes - The Dreamers (Bernardo Bertolucci)

Friday, July 31, 2009

The Year 2003: Counting Down the Zeroes - The Dreamers (Bernardo Bertolucci)

In 1968, students protested in France over what were some archaic rules that called for strict separation between the sexes in the universities. Through a complicated chain of events, this led to the involvement of the revolutionary film directors and actors of the French New Wave after the closing of the Cinémathèque Française, and the ousting of its founder, Henri Langlois. Many have traced the beginnings of the liberated French culture of today to the days of the protests when the anarchic students of France, emulating the revolutionary nature of their distant brothers in America, took a stand against the antiquated mores of the previous generation's society. Eventually after several months of confrontations between the students and the police, it all culminated in a general strike that lasted for weeks in May, involved over 10 million workers despite no authorization being given by any labor unions, and ended changing French society forever. Bernardo Bertolucci's The Dreamers sets its story against the tumultuous backdrop of those events. It focuses on the near-incestuous relationship between French twins Theo (Louis Garrel) and Isabelle (Eva Green), as seen through the eyes of American student, Matthew (Michael Pitt). When the twins' parents go on an extended holiday, leaving them alone in their apartment, Michael soon gets lured into a perverse triangle with the immature siblings, enabling their transgressive sexual desires through him, if not necessarily through each other. Bertolucci uses the relationship to parallel France's violent rebellions, implying that American culture was the inspiration behind the country's social upheaval. We first see, Isabelle and Theo's fascination with Matthew, a strong silent type they are unaccustomed too in their native land. This is a reflection of their idolization of American cinema and its directors (Bertolucci directly quotes films as diverse as Samuel Fuller's Shock Corridor and Frank Tashlin's The Girl Can't Help It, among others). Once Matthew is drawn in by the two, the three bond over their different takes on American culture, debating the virtues of Chaplin vs. Keaton, Clapton vs. Hendrix. Theo's revolutionary spirit is lit by the gritty gangster films and rock-and-roll music slowly making its way overseas from the U.S. Isabelle, representative of the beauty and culture France has been so protective of for so many years, is a tad more resistant to follow her brother down the path of protest he seems intent on travelling. Finally, it is Michael who gives Theo the initiative to act and join the protesters outside the apartment where they've been conducting their taboo affair, by criticizing Theo's constant intellectual regurgitation of Maoist doctrine. He points out that Theo, and in fact, the French, only seem to approach revolution from a cerebral standpoint instead of engaging it viscerally. Unfortunately, Matthew, who so perceptively diagnosed Isabelle and Theo's dysfunctional infantilism in regard to their strange relationship, is unable to consummate the spark he lit within Theo, refusing to join him once the protests escalate into violence. It is this that points to Bertolucci's notion that Americans, so shining an example in its pursuit of change with its own protests during the Vietnam war, the civil rights movement, women's liberation, etc., ultimately gave up too easily. Watergate, the consumption era of the eighties, the refusal to let go of antiquated dependence on foreign oil, all can arguably be said to stem from our inability to stand up to the establishment the way the French did. Thus, it is the French who continued on to a new age of idealism, while leaving us behind. This post was first published at Film for the Soul for its continuing series on the best movies of the 2000s, Counting Down the Zeroes, on 7/19/09.


Chuck W said...

It's been a long time since I've seen this one, so I can't really comment on specifics. But I can say that this is an excellent analysis of what I feel has become a very underrated film. Very nicely done.

Barring a disastrous second viewing, this would probably make it into my top three list of Bertolucci films (followed by The Conformist and Last Tango in Paris).

Tony Dayoub said...

Thanks, Chuck.

I would agree with you on the ranking. However, there are some key Bertolucci films I haven't seen yet (1900 and The Last Emperor) that would probably kick The Dreamers out of my top three, from what I've read.

Joel Bocko said...

Despite some flaws - and the inability of any fictional film to really capture the sixties (I prefer primary documents for that purpose) although it's always fascinating to see them try and catch little whisps - no cinephile can truly resist this movie. (And yeah, Eva Green doesn't hurt either!)

I find your interpretation of the end quite surprising, however. I think we're meant to sympathize with Michael when he warns Theo against destructive violence - a reading I believe Bertolucci supports in interviews, even as his nostalgia for those halcyon days (which, by the way, he was not present to experience first-hand, as he was shooting The Spider's Strategem in Italy) leads him to play Edith Piaf's "Je ne regrete rien" (sp???) over the closing credits.

Anyway, the French students were eventually crushed by the Gaullist government, which siphoned off the support of labor unions with new reforms and called for an election in June with De Gaulle won. And the Maoists like Theo were not looking for a relaxed, reformed liberal state like France is today, but a doctrinaire worker's state like Red China (though in fact, even more than this they were probably just looking for a thrill and the pleasures of certainty which comes with subordination - however half-hearted - to an ideology, hence Theo's speech to Matthew).

It's true that May '68 did lead - indirectly - to a relaxation of the French government's paternalism and a more liberal ethos in society; the breakdown of bourgeois values as far as sexuality and personal lifestyle -but I don't think this is what the movie is addressing in its conclusion (as opposed to its main body).

[My comment is too long, so it will be divided into two parts; this is my revenge for all your Twin Peaks discussion-starters, ha ha!]

Joel Bocko said...

Rather, the question is, does street violence, Theo's Molotov cocktail, shatter the dream world which the trio has lived in throughout the film - the world of personal liberty, and drugs, and free sexuality, and love of art and camaradarie - or is it the epitome of this rebellious spirit, the perhaps self-destructive orgasm following all the orgies and movies and arguments. Obviously Matthew argues for the former reading, one which seems to be borne out by his separation from his fellow dreamers, the oncoming end of the movie, and of course the knowledge that May '68 eventually ended and revolution was not achieved (at least not immediately). Meanwhile Theo seems to imply - though his actions appear more driven by instinct than intellect - that just as a poem is a petition and a petition is a poem, a Molotov cocktail is the logical outcome of rebellion and resistance to authority.

One could posit this conclusion as another manifestation of Bertolucci's conflicted attachments to the idea of revolution (he has been a lifelong Communist, still is I believe) and his sensual side, his love of art and sex and passion - which in this film are shown to be at least partly revolutionary, but are usually presented as anti-revolutionary (as they eventually are in this film too) as "dreamlike" and ultimately bourgeois - life "before the revolution" which was, of course, the subject of his breakthrough film.

The conflict between Theo's and Matthew's ethos could also be seen as the tension between the New Left and the counterculture, which had an uneasy alliance before 1968, a year in which they fundamentally came together after some flirtations for years (many early counterculture types were emphatically antipolitical, while a lot of politicos were puritanical and suspected sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll as bourgeois hangups).

Anyway, sorry if I'm rambling on but this time and place in history is one of my favorites; I find its ideological/generational/social themes as rich and fascinating as those of the Spanish Civil War or the 60s at large (particularly in America). Some good books on the subject I'd recommend are 1968 by Mark Kurlansky, which analyzes the events of the whole year but has a particular section completely devoted to May '68; and also From Revolution to Ethics, which has a substantial chunk of the book devoted to May '68 but then goes on to detail the ways that near-revolution DID transform French society, with a particular emphasis on the Left's shift in focus from revolutionary rhetoric in which the state was invalid and all that mattered was personal liberation and defiance to an ethical discourse in which law was a bedrock and defense against oppression.

Looking forward to your future entries in Counting Down the Zeroes (I've got one coming up for 2004...)

Tony Dayoub said...

"And the Maoists like Theo were not looking for a relaxed, reformed liberal state like France is today, but a doctrinaire worker's state like Red China..."

While I agree the Maoists were looking for that worker's state, I think in many ways that Theo was caught up in the romance of it all. Bertolucci implies his affinity for Theo in the British making-of documentary included in this film's DVD. And taking your description of Bertolucci's conflicting impulses as a communist and a libertine, one can see how he does identify with Theo's naivete. It is best illustrated in the scene in which Theo talks about his admiration for Mao's insistence that everyone read books, and Michael pointing out that Mao really only wants the Chinese to read ONE book.

While I think Bertolucci does agree with Michael in that violence is not the answer, I believe that in many ways (and he may not even be conscious of it, but I think this movie supports it) he blames America for inciting the French youth's rebellious stance after they bought into the countercultural ideas disseminated by our music and films even though Americans were ultimately not dedicated enough to act on these principles. I think Michael represents those Americans that flirt with a cause, but are unwilling to commit themselves to it (implied by Theo's accusation of Michael as a draft dodger).

"It's true that May '68 did lead - indirectly - to a relaxation of the French government's paternalism and a more liberal ethos in society; the breakdown of bourgeois values as far as sexuality and personal lifestyle -but I don't think this is what the movie is addressing in its conclusion (as opposed to its main body)."

Well, maybe not at the film's conclusion, but the implication does hover over the film throughout. As Bertolucci discusses in the same documentary, the inclusion of actors Jean-Pierre Kalfon (L'amour fou) and Jean-Pierre Léaud (The 400 Blows) playing themselves during the protests, despite that almost 50 years have passed and the actors have obviously aged, also begs the viewer to compare the society of the film's period with today's society.

Joel Bocko said...

Tony, that's a good point about the ambiguity of Bertolucci's sympathy for Michael's point of view. Michael is happy to flirt with rebellion and anarchy but frightened to go all the way. Maybe he's right to be so but there's something more appealing about Theo's intensity and commitment, to be sure.

I think you're right about Bertolucci comparing today's society to the past but probably more from the perspective that change and freedom are still needed; I get the sense that most Europeans see May '68 as a lost cause rather than a victorious (if indirect) revolution - even if the latter may be closer to the truth.